Carbonite is one of the most recognizable names in online backup. It’s also one of the easiest-to-use online backup services around, its mobile apps are well done, and it presents a good value for your money. Carbonite is still weak on sharing features, however, and limits you to a single PC, with external and network drives off-limits for backup. Recent news for the service is that it’s discontinued the Sync & Share feature, so, unlike competitors such as IDrive and SpiderOakONE, Carbonite no longer has folder-syncing capability.

Price Plans Carbonite’s pricing plans are pretty straightforward: For $59.99 per year, the Basic plan gets you unlimited backup space for one PC or Mac computer. The Plus upgrade option ($99.99) adds the ability to back up external drives and create a mirror image of your entire disk for full system backup. The Prime plan ($149.99) adds automatic video backup (included in the base plan of Editors’ Choice service SOS Online Backup) and a courier recovery service, which sends your data to you on a disk. The last will be of interest to SOHO users who may not have time to download hundreds of gigabytes of restored files.

The fact that Carbonite’s base price only covers one PC is not uncommon. But Editors’ Choice IDrive offers 1TB that you can use on as many computers as you like for about the same price as Carbonite’s one-PC-unlimited plan. A free 15-day trial Carbonite account is available (with no credit card needed), but there’s no permanent, low-storage free plan like those offered by OpenDrive and IDrive. 

Interface: Choosing What to Back UpAfter downloading Carbonite’s PC software, you’re taken through a clear wizard-driven process to select what’s backed up and when. First you choose a nickname for the computer. That way, if you add other computers to your account, you know which one has the files you want. Next comes a big help for those who aren’t sure exactly which files to back up: The wizard offers to automatically choose what to include (documents, photos, email, and music) and when to upload the files.

There’s also an Advanced option that lets you decide on the backup set and schedule the backup for yourself. You can use Advanced either to fine-tune Carbonite’s default selections or to start completely from scratch. If you spring for the Plus plan, you can have the service back up your entire drive, system files and all, as well as connected external drives. The higher-level plans also let you create a duplicate backup to local storage, so that you can recover files without an Internet connection.

Backup Scheduling and SecurityNext it’s time to choose when backups should occur. I really like the default option, Continuous. You can also simply tell the software to back up once a day. If your Internet connection isn’t the strongest, you may prefer that, though you can also tell Carbonite not to upload during your busy hours. The Continuous option only uploads file changes and new files, however, so it shouldn’t overly tax your connection.

Once you know what you’re backing up and when, you need to decide on a security level. Carbonite encrypts your data before sending it to its servers. By default, Carbonite manages your encryption key, but those who want to really lock down their data can choose to manage their own key. This means no one at Carbonite has the means to access to your files even if compelled to by a search warrant, but also that they won’t be able to recover your files if you lose the key. It means, furthermore, that you don’t get Web access to your files; Mozy, by contrast, allows Web access for accounts using private keys. If you pick Carbonite, I recommend the still-secure but less-restrictive managed-key option.

Your final options before Carbonite actually starts processing and uploading your data are to have the service prevent your PC from sleeping and to add any files not covered automatically—videos, program files, and files larger than 4GB. A wizard page explains that the initial upload could take a couple days. It also explains Carbonite’s helpful File Explorer dots. The software adds a red dot if a file’s waiting to be backed up, and green if it’s all set. You can right click on any allowable file to add it to the backup set. If you update a file, the right-click context menu offers a “back up as soon as possible” choice, something I appreciate. If this functionality is very important to you, then Carbonite is a better choice for you than SOS Online Backup. CrashPlan, IDrive, and SpiderOakONE offer similar Explorer integration, though.

During upload, Carbonite’s clear InfoCenter window shows you exactly which file is currently being worked on, along with an overall progress bar. A system tray icon lets you launch the InfoCenter, freeze your backup, or pause uploads. Clicking a linked number of pending backup files opens an Explorer window that mirrors your drive structure, though it’s populated only by backup files. InfoCenter’s Settings tab lets you turn off the Explorer dots, change the backup set and schedule, and reduce bandwidth usage.

Backup SpeedFor performance and bandwidth testing, I timed the Carbonite’s backup upload speeds on two 100MB sets of mixed file types and sizes. I used PCMag’s superfast 177Mbps (upload speed) corporate Internet connection so that bandwidth wouldn’t be the limiting speed factor.

At 3 minutes and 10 seconds Carbonite was among the slower services, only besting the very slow Backblaze. This compared with SOS Online’s 52 seconds and CrashPlan’s 59 seconds. Carbonite used to throttle throughput speed for personal accounts after 200GB was uploaded, but the company has since ended that unpopular policy.

Restoring FilesCarbonite’s InfoCenter is also your friend when it comes time to restore files. When you search for files to restore, you can either replace them in their original location or restore to a desktop folder. One problem I have with Carbonite is that if you delete a file on the backed-up PC, only to later realize you really wanted it, the service only keeps the file for 30 days. SOS keeps those files forever.

Carbonite saves multiple versions of files as you edit and save them. They’re kept for a bit longer than deleted files—3 months. But you’re limited to 12 versions, compared with SOS’s unlimited versions. In my tests of a document I updated several times, Carbonite correctly saved all versions.

When you need to restore your entire PC backup to a new machine, Carbonite can recreate the lost PC’s Windows user account on the new PC. You can also create a new user account for the backup. Note that when you do a full restore to a new machine, you lose the ability to back up the original PC, since the service only covers one PC per account. Otherwise, you can just save all the files to a separate folder. A nice option in the Restore window lets you use a search box to specify particular folders and files you need first. Carbonite estimates tells you how long the restore will take, and you can access already-processed files any time during the restoration.

Web InterfaceAs with the desktop interface, Carbonite’s Web interface is clear and well designed. It offers a folder view along with a quick search box, and all you have to do is double-click on a filename to start downloading it. One thing missing from the Web interface, however, is file-version choice.

A Facebook button lets you send photos from your backed-up collection directly to the leading social network, but aside from this, there isn’t much in the way of sharing features from the Web client. I am surprised that you can’t even create a direct link to a file or extend editing access, as you can in several online backup services. Nor can you play music or videos from the Web UI.

Mobile AppsCarbonite offers mobile apps for Android and iOS (missing is Windows Phone, for which IDrive has an excellent app). Oddly, you won’t find links to the apps on Carbonite’s site; you just have to search for Carbonite Mobile in the device’s store. Large button tiles in the app offer access to Pictures, Documents, Music, and Desktop, or you can just view all your folders. I was able to view photos and documents, and even to play uploaded music right inside the app. File sharing is accomplished via iOS’s built-in email sharing, which attaches files to an email message. The app was recently updated to support TouchID for easy access to protected files.

Easy, Unlimited Online BackupIf you just want to back up your PC files to prepare for the occasional crisis, Carbonite is a fine choice. It stands out in the crowded online backup space with its ease of use, unlimited storage, and continuous backup. Against these strengths, however, you have to weigh its lack of support for external disks, limited sharing features, and the short period deleted files are saved. If those are concerns, you’re better off with one of the PCMag Editors’ Choice online backup services: CrashPlan for its innovations, SOS Online Backup for its super speed and powerful features, or IDrive for its wealth of features at a low cost.